At 18 years old, she was looking for direction and joined the U.S. Army Reserve. Now, 21 years later, she has no regrets and is even more motivated to serve.
“I joined the Army to get out of Indiana, and they were even going to pay me to leave,” laughed Sgt. 1st Class Rachel Copeland in reflection. “I just had no drive to go into school. I wanted a purpose, and the Army Reserve gave me a purpose.”
Copeland currently works as a noncommissioned officer in the Plans and Operations Section at the 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training) Headquarters in Fort Benning, Georgia. However, this is a fairly new assignment to her. In fact, this Soldier has spent a majority of her time in boots away from a desk, documenting military activities around the world as a combat camera Soldier with the 982nd Combat Camera Company out of East Point, Georgia.
In that role, Copeland found more than purpose. She found a fast-paced environment that constantly challenged her to develop, adapt and excel. With less than 200 U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers in the combat camera job skill, there was no shortage of opportunities to work. “So with that [job], you could be extremely active because you were covering the whole Army story and not just the Army Reserve story,” explained the Soldier who hails from Roselawn, Indiana.
Though the 982nd Combat Camera Company is a U.S. Army Reserve unit, it continues to be utilized by units throughout the U.S. Army, as well as the Department of Defense. According to their website, their mission is to help top leadership stay informed and make decisions by providing them “first-hand still and video imagery (both released and classified) of our forces in the field.”
So in that role, Copeland traveled to countless places with a mission to document both training and real-world events. “We tell the Army story for historical purposes. It’s what happens on the ground, unfiltered, unbiased. We are the eyes and ears for the Pentagon, the White House and every command cell that is not out on the ground when the mission happens,” said the combat camera Soldier.
Of course, while out in the field or down-range, Copeland has had the opportunity to do more than document what other Soldiers are doing. She’s received some on-the-job training and invaluable experiences. “When you get attached [to a unit], you are a part of that group…You are there to document, but if they need a helping hand, you become that person on the ground,” said Copeland. So while this Soldier was documenting events, she’s had the opportunity to pitch in and even learn a variety of tasks outside her job, such as how to drop a cement barrier, how to blow up a bridge or how to use artillery. Not your everyday kind of tasks, but still cool nonetheless, remarked Copeland. “I got to fire cannons downrange…I’ve flown in – shoot – anything you can think of. Either hooked in and hanging out the back, hooked in and hanging out the side, up front with the crew, or in the cab – you get a lot of experiences along the way with everyone’s [job].”
This doesn’t mean everything has been easy and fun though. Copeland has had to dig deep and find strength to process some of the experiences in her 21-year career that has included two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
During her first Iraq deployment (2003-2004), the young Soldier had to learn how to cope with regular rocket attacks and some mortuary affairs tasks. Those are things that just stay with you, and mature you in ways you cannot really explain, said the combat veteran.
And during her second deployment to Iraq (2006-2007), Copeland survived an improvised explosive device (IED) attack while in a convoy. “I am so grateful every day that I still have my legs, because most IEDs that blow from underneath, take your legs.” Copeland swears it was the water cooler that saved her, making her an “IED survivor.” In fact, she was the only Soldier in the vehicle who could remain in Iraq to serve another seven months after being injured. “The vehicle was blown to smithereens. They are still trying to figure out how I survived. But—it wasn’t my time to go. So, I have taken every opportunity since then to give back, because I got to keep my legs that day.”
Naturally, these kinds of experiences affect people, and this Purple Heart awardee found herself to be no different. “The first [deployment] changed me, let alone the second one…There is no way you can go back to the innocent person you were beforehand. I mean, war is ugly. Everybody wears it. I don’t think anybody has come back the same person they left.”
With time, therapy and mentorship, Copeland has discovered that her journey, even with the traumatic events, has not changed her negatively.
The changes are not all good nor bad, they are just different, according to Copeland. And just like any other veteran who has deployed and then returned back home, Copeland says it takes time to reacclimate. “You learn how to readjust back into civilian life again and be around people who are not hyper vigilant. It takes a while, but then you realize that the box in the middle of the road is empty and just blew out of someone’s truck. It wasn’t placed there. That bag of trash that fell out is somebody not tying stuff down—it’s they don’t care versus it’s someone after you,” explained the IED survivor.
“Once you get past that part, you have to learn how to reintegrate yourself into larger group areas, because—your Army training is always there, so you are asking me to shut it off. Well, it takes a minute to turn it on. Therefore, it takes a minute to shut it off. And, I don’t think you can ever really shut it off, because the threat is still there. But at the same time, you have to continue with life. So you find a happy medium that works for you and your family.”
After 15 years in the combat camera job, Copeland has continued with life and her career in the U.S. Army Reserve. Rather than documenting the action, this combat veteran is using her skills to help develop other Soldiers and drive division activities. Now, she helps her fellow Soldiers by coordinating their military school assignments and offering mentorship to those who may need it. Copeland has also been actively involved in several division plans, which has offered her an experience and education at an entirely new perspective.
“This is where the bigger pictures starts,” said the Soldier who now has to think of how every element in a division can implement the guidance or mission of an operational order. “It’s understanding how a mission comes down from the top. And then, how it gets executed from the bottom up. It’s learning the whole wheel at this level, which is exciting because if you are going to give back, or become the next leader at the top, you really need to know how the wheel works.”
One of her more exciting experiences in planning came when she was a key player in implementing the 98th Training Division’s Iroquois Warrior Challenge in 2018. The division-level competition tested the skills of 70 U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers who made up five-Soldier teams and represented the 2500+ Soldiers in the 14 battalions spread across more than 10 states that make up the 98th Training Division footprint. In trying to develop that complicated U.S. Army Reserve event to happen on an Active Duty installation, every detail mattered. “If you don’t’ stay on top of it, it will fall through,” explained Copeland.
After three months of planning, the Iroquois Warrior Challenge plan was put to the test, and the sergeant first class who contributed to those plans found it exciting, even when logistical hiccups popped up needing to be solved.
“It was amazing. The people on the ground could not tell that there were tons of things going on behind the scenes. I was so grateful it went off the way it did,” said Copeland. “The competitors enjoyed it enough that they want to come back. That’s the key. That means that every part flexed correctly and it brought a lot of those teams together. Some of them had not met their leadership, or even the people on their team. So they bonded through this environment, which is what we are trying to do: make us one family under the division.”
Family has been, and continues to be, one word that Copeland uses to describe her experience in the U.S. Army Reserve. She left home at 18 to find a purpose, but in addition to that she found an extended family of battle buddies. No matter how much time has passed or what is going on, she knows she can count on her extended family that she has acquired from uniformed coworkers over the years.
As a Purple Heart recipient, she is often asked what she would tell someone who is considering joining the Army. Her reply is consistently the same, and it includes the element of family. “Only one percent joins the service to begin with. Do you want to be that one percent? I mean, it might make you stronger, so why not try it? What do you really have to lose, except for some time, and in that time, they will train you how to meet what they need. They don’t set you up for failure. They set you up for success. So, if you are looking for a family, which is what the Army is--no matter what component—if you are looking for a family, we will be your family.”
And just like a traditional family, Copeland doesn’t want to let anyone down. She wants to do her part, give back and make her network stronger. Every day is a new opportunity for this Soldier and as she progresses in rank and learns the bigger picture, she’s moving more and more into a leadership role.
“I always down play my experiences. I’ve had a ton of people say that I should write a book,” said Copeland. Considering the array of experiences she’s had, she doesn’t disagree with them. “God has enlightened my military career with tons of experience and the weirdest scenarios at the same time,” laughed the combat veteran. But for now, she will push the role of author to the side and focus on being a mentor. She wants to fully embody the NCO Corps’ mantra of being the ‘Backbone of the Army’ and be “known as the person you could always lean on.”
This Soldier completely understands that her success in uniform is a working relationship. And even after 21 years of service, she knows that she still has to produce results, and she is more than willing to work for it. “Each five year period, I ask, have I given enough back to the Army, that the Army will promote me to the next rank?”
Her goal rank is sergeant major, because it is at that rank she feels she can give the most back. She looks forward to the opportunity to travel around her unit, talking with her Soldiers and finding out how she can help them. She wants to be there for others, like others have been for her. And ultimately, the goal rank of sergeant major is where she feels she can make the most difference.
“For me, it’s giving back to the Army everything it has given me, which is the training, the leadership, the mentorship.”
So even with the tough times and challenging assignments, Copeland has no regrets on joining the Army. “I have none, not even with all the experiences. Actually, it’s pushed me to be a better person, a better Soldier.”